Bias Claims of Female, Japanese Professor Go to Trial

Satomi Niwayama was hired by Texas Tech University as an associate professor of chemistry in 2004. A male associate chemistry professor hired at the same time initially earned the same salary, but in each of the next five years was paid at least $500 more than Niwayama.

The university argued that Niwayama’s lower pay resulted from objective measurements, research funding and teaching evaluations, even though the male professor had lower teaching evaluations and a similar history of obtaining grants. After being denied tenure for a fourth time, Niwayama sued for unequal pay based on her sex and national origin.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit reversed a District Court for the Northern District of Texas’ decision to grant a summary judgment to the university on Niwayama’s unequal pay claim.

The 5th Circuit held that the issue of pretext was disputed and a jury could find that the university had failed to disclose its criteria and formula for the award of compensation, together with comparative treatment between Niwayama and a male professor. Niwayama v. Texas Tech University, 5th Circuit, No. 13-11225(Nov. 10, 2014). 

IMPACT:Employers relying on a formula to compensate employees must be prepared to demonstrate both the neutrality of the formula and that employees of both sexes are judged equally when it comes to eligibility for pay adjustments. It is recommended that employers periodically audit such pay practices to ensure consistency, accuracy and equal treatment.